Raised in a conservative Muslim family in Turkey’s remote Black Sea region, he studied business in the country’s largest and most important city, Istanbul, before embarking on a political career. He played high-level football into his early 20s and won his first major public post in Istanbul at a relatively young age, where he established a reputation as a reliable administrator that soon carried him to national prominence.
I could be describing the country’s longtime leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or his likeliest challenger, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, as the echoes in their back stories are considerable. Both have also been shouldering blame as residents of Istanbul, which represents a third of GDP, have struggled in recent weeks with skyrocketing food prices.
As detailed last week by a top Western outlet, Ankara has been pressing bakeries to keep prices low, while Istanbul municipality has undercut independent bakeries by subsidising city-run bread vendors. “We are crushed from two sides,” one baker said.
When he ran for Istanbul mayor in March 2019, Mr Imamoglu was a little-known candidate for the main opposition CHP, who had served just one stint as mayor of an affluent district on the western edge of the city. After he beat his opponent Binali Yildirim, a co-founder of the ruling AKP and former prime minister under Mr Erdogan, by the slimmest of margins, the country’s top election body annulled the result and ordered a recall.
Similar to the failed 2016 coup attempt for Mr Erdogan, this turned out to be Mr Imamoglu’s “gift from God”. He was viewed as a hero by many in Turkey and beyond, seen to be fighting the good fight against a problematic regime. After his March victory he had 350,000 Twitter followers, yet by the time of the June re-vote, which Mr Imamoglu won by a much larger margin, he had more than 2.5 million. He had campaigned on a platform of social unity and “radical love,” and in his victory speech named the city’s religious and ethnic minority groups one by one.
“Once in office, Mr Imamoglu put his pluralist and inclusive vision into action,” Aykan Erdemir, Turkey programme director at the Foundation of the Defense of Democracies and a former member of Turkish parliament, and Tugba Tanyeri-Erdemir, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, wrote last week for US-based Providence magazine.
They cited his appointment of officials from all the city’s faith congregations and efforts to restore and protect the city’s Greek Orthodox heritage, as well as his regular holiday greetings on social media to the Christian and Jewish communities of Istanbul.
But all of Turkey’s top politicians, including Mr Erdogan, send out similar holiday greetings. And even before taking office, Mr Imamoglu began to show a darker side. In his first interview after his June victory, he described refugees as a severe trauma for locals and said Syrians working unregistered jobs threatened their livelihoods.
“We have to protect our people’s interests,” said the incoming mayor. “They cannot change Istanbul’s colour recklessly.”
This was surely a nod to the rising anti-Syrian sentiment that played a key role in his victory and that of the CHP’s Mansur Yavas in the Turkish capital, Ankara. But for a candidate who had talked of social unity and vowed that “all different voices, colours, faiths” would be seen as opportunities, not risks, it marked a major shift, even a betrayal.
Days later, prompted by false rumours that a Syrian had assaulted a local girl, residents of a western Istanbul district attacked Syrians and smashed Syrian-run businesses. The new mayor sat for another interview, yet rather than quell the unrest he fanned the flames.
First he denounced all the city’s Arabic signage. “You cannot read the signboards in some quarters,” he said. “This is Turkey.” Asked about the xenophobic violence, he seemed to defend locals by saying they were restless. He added that Syrians may need to be isolated in camps or “re-educated”.
The interviewer told Mr Imamoglu his comments were dangerous, and even supporters of the mayor quickly pointed out that many great cities have mostly migrant districts filled with foreign signage. Turkey has for years hosted more than four million refugees, more than any country in the world.
Syrians and other Arabs and migrants have come to dominate parts of several cities, including Istanbul, leading to occasional clashes. Particularly during a time of economic struggle, it is understandable if locals feel some resentment toward those snatching up low-paying jobs.
This summer, when thousands of Afghans were seen streaming across Turkey’s eastern border, many Turks expressed outrage on social media. CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu vowed that if his party were to come to power it would send all Syrians back home. This anti-immigrant stance is among the opposition’s main criticisms of the ruling AKP, which has seen its popularity fall to record lows in recent months.
One CHP parliamentarian accused the government of handing citizenship to ISIS fighters, while a mayor for the nationalist opposition IYI Party has enacted openly anti-immigrant laws. In 2018 The Economist may have spoken too soon when it declared Istanbul an emerging haven for Arabs.
Still, more than 100,000 Syrians have become Turkish citizens and half a million Syrian babies have been born in Turkey. In mid-2020, Mr Imamoglu wrote an English-language article calling for an embrace of diversity in Istanbul and better refugee integration.
Such efforts have boosted his international standing. He has visited several European capitals over the past year seeking infrastructure investment, and last month, he spoke at the climate summit in Glasgow as a sustainability expert.
Mr Imamoglu has also quietly continued his nativist posturing. A year ago, thanks in part to the mayor’s backing, Istanbul named a park after Huseyin Nihal Atsiz, one of the more racist and anti-Semitic nationalists in Turkish history. "The Jew cannot be Turkish no matter how hard he tries,” Atsiz once wrote.
Those outside and within Turkey prone to seeing the Istanbul mayor as merely a progressive counter to the country’s conservative president would be wise to take a closer look.